Signature filmmaking: The San Francisco Film Society's Founder's Directing Award goes to Mike Leigh, whose "Topsy-Turvy" plays the Castro Wednesday, April 30. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy World

Dennis Harvey April 29, 2008

If any one thing unites the 22 winners so far of the SF Film Society’s Founder’s Directing Award, it’s that they’re all unique cinematic voices whose signature viewpoints and styles could never be mistaken for another’s. Akira Kurosawa (for whom the award was originally named), Michael Powell, Robert Bresson, Jiri Menzel, Francesco Rosi, Im Kwon-Taek, Arturo Ripstein, Abbas Kiarostami, Robert Altman, Werner Herzog, Spike Lee—these are the kinds of talents that the term "auteur" fits like a glove, as their directorial personalities are manifest in every frame, in every film. (The list’s only partial exceptions are, curiously, a few other Americans including Eastwood, Penn, Mankiewicz and Donen—superb craftsmen who’ve often subsumed a personal touch in service to the subject at hand.

Over four decades as a writer-director whose film, TV and stage work have created a distinctive ongoing insider’s portrait of working-to-middle class English life, Mike Leigh now seems a natural 23rd addition to that lofty roll call. His each new movie or play is a cultural event—OK, not a pop-culture event, but one exported to arthouses and theatres around the world. His initial rise during the late 1980s must have galled Thatcherites who’d have preferred British cinema to be represented by Merchant-Ivory-style sumptuous nostalgia—not Leigh’s grotty, funny, barbed extensions of the "Angry Young Man" anti-nostalgic tradition.

But now he’s the beloved institution, and they’re the dinosaurs. Either as a wink in that direction, or simply as a crowd-pleasing gesture, SF International’s "Evening with Mike Leigh" on April 30 at the Castro (he’ll be handed the actual prize at May 1’s black-tie Film Society Awards Night the following evening) will conclude with his 1999 Gilbert & Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy. Beforehand, we’ll get a career-spanning clip show and critic David D’Arcy interviewing Leigh onstage. He’s sure to be insightful and outspoken company, being a man to whom Wikipedia attributes the quote, "Given a choice of Hollywood and sticking steel pins in my eyes, I’d choose steel pins." We have reason to believe it’s his: Among English film directors of his generation and similar stature, almost none resisted the Hollywood bait—and most (Stephen Frears being one example) probably wish they had.

Early on, one wouldn’t have imagined Mike Leigh accessing such broad audiences outside the U.K. His films were so damn English—spoken not in the crisply articulated upper-crust vernacular, but hard-to-suss (for offshore ears), working-class slanguage. More, they were clearly improvisation-based in development and narrative shape (via a "rep company" that for variable lengths encompassed Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Katrin Cartlidge, David Thewlis and Jim Broadbent.

Leigh got his first U.S. retrospective at 1986’s S.F. International Film Festival, when his screen work had been all for British TV. The subsequently exported features High Hopes (1988) and Life is Sweet (1990) won many fans with comedy involving those stratas of native society he’d claim closest identification with. Yet Leigh considerably deepened his art as he broadened his audience.

The wake-up call was 1993’s uncompromising Naked, a brutally funny (when not just brutal) jet-black "comedy" with gangling Thewlis as a ne’er-do-well drifter whose arrival from Manchester at his ex-girlfriend’s shared London house brings down all kinds of havoc. The pain and outrage on display felt authentically raw, as did the humor.

It was 1996’s tumultuous interracial/class family melodrama Secrets and Lies that got Mike Leigh on the ever-shrinking list of automatically exportable arthouse directors. Next came Career Girls (1997), which starred Lynda Steadman (no relation to Alison) and the late Katrin Cartlidge as onetime college roommates who meet again while uneasily trying to climb the success ladder in London. Its characteristic low-key and cunning flavor was echoed by 2002’s All or Nothing, featuring longtime Leigh favorite Spall as an infinitely put-upon lower-class dad. It is apparently carried on by soon-to-be-released Happy-Go-Lucky, by all accounts Leigh’s sunniest feature in eons—if ever. It’s about an optimistic young London schoolteacher who stubbornly refuses to let anything get her down.

Between those endeavors, however, Leigh embarked on his most ambitious films, both period pieces that U.S. cineastes missed at their cafe-cred peril. Vera Drake (2004) was a stark, striking portrait of a pragmatic 1950s backdoor Brit abortionist (Imelda Staunton, again Oscar-nominated) whose earnest efforts to help "women in trouble" sans legal medical cooperation lead to personal catastrophe.

A terse, finely designed miniature, it was nothing like 1999’s startlingly sumptuous, ebullient costume spectacle Topsy-Turvy, which dramatized a crisis in the creative collaboration of 19th-century operetta geniuses Gilbert & Sullivan. Yes, it’s potential Merchant-Ivory material—yet those dignified gentleman would surely have softened the lusty, quarrelsome, impolitely gossipy-trashy matter that drives Leigh’s delightful backstage quasi-musical.

Over the years, as Mike Leigh has duly branched out, he, more than any major British filmmaker of his generation, has stayed true to his roots. At 65, he still no doubt has a lot more stories to tell. The high productivity of early days, when his projects as playwright (acid Abigail’s Party, Nuts in May Bleak Moments), director (Meantime) and scenarist weren’t separated by years but months, might be chalked up to the spryness of youth and the lucky creative pressure of another era’s Brit TV commissions. As Leigh gained the luxury of longer germination periods, his movies gained larger international audiences, budgets, and expectations.